Sunday 18 February 2018

'I won't let fascist protesters bully me out of politics' - Brendan Howlin interview

Brendan Howlin opens up on abuse from demonstrators, life with Fine Gael and Coalition options in an interview with Philip Ryan

UNDETERRED: Minister Brendan Howlin has firmly ruled out sharing power with Fianna Fail
UNDETERRED: Minister Brendan Howlin has firmly ruled out sharing power with Fianna Fail
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

BAR Italia in Mick Wallace's Italian Quarter in Dublin City Centre is probably not the first place you would expect to find his constituency rival and fellow Wexford man Brendan Howlin on a Sunday afternoon.

But that's where the public expenditure minister and his friend, Wexford county councillor George Lawlor, decided to have a beer and something to eat one day in mid-July.

The minister's well-earned downtime did not last long.

Online video footage shows how a group of around 20 anti-water charge protesters descended on the restaurant and began shouting abuse at the minister and his guest while they ate.

The nasty scene has become a regular feature of political life, and government TDs regularly encounter abusive demonstrators outside their homes or as they walk to work in Leinster House.

Undoubtedly, the strain of these frequent encounters with protesters has weighed heavily on the minds of the six Labour TDs - including former party leaders Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbite and Ruairi Quinn - who decided to call it quits before the General Election.

However, in an honest and revealing interview with the Sunday Independent, Howlin insists he will not be bullied out of politics by "fascist" protesters.

Speaking in his office in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, the minister says he never contemplated calling it a day on his political career, despite the harassment from protesters.

"Their idea is that they will determine where democratic politicians can go - now that's fascism. There are streets that you are barred from, a community that you are not allowed to talk to because they determine it," Howlin says.

"We are determined, our future politically is determined by the ballot box and if we walk away from that and we allow a handful of people to bully people off the political pitch we're in a very dangerous space," he said.

Howlin, who is chair of the Labour election strategy committee, says he is not disappointed in colleagues who decided to call it a day, but is reluctant to say if he asked them not to run.

"There's no doubt that we've lost very high-profile people. I think by and large there's always regeneration, fresh faces, always new ideas to come forward," he says.

At 59, Howlin's political career is far from over, and whisperings around Leinster House suggest he still is leadership material should Joan Burton step aside after the election.

Asked three times during the course of this interview if he would run for the leadership again, he notably refuses to rule out future ambitions for the top job.

"There's been talk about me being the next leader of the Labour Party since Dick Spring's time - you can only be the pretender for the throne so often," he says.

Pushed for an answer, the minister, who did not challenge during the last two Labour leader votes, agrees he will never rule out anything, but insists Joan Burton will lead a successful election campaign and the party will get a result that "will surprise a lot of people".

However, some of his loyal supporters suggest it is he who runs Labour while Burton acts as the public face of the party.

And in a further indication of his standing, Howlin today insists Labour will under no circumstances go into govern- ment with Fianna Fail - a point the Tanaiste has yet to definitively make.

He says it would be "unconscionable" to allow Fianna Fail back into government after the party "brought our economy and our country and our people to its knees".

"I think it's a view that is widely shared within the Labour Party that it would be unacceptable to put Fianna Fail back in government after one term of opposition," he says.

Howlin says Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin is a "fine and decent man", but adds that the public should be aware he was foreign affairs minister when Ireland's "reputation in Europe was shredded".

Labour ruling out Fianna Fail leaves Martin with few options and comes as he seeks to recover from Gerry Adams' suggestion that he would do a deal with his party.

Howlin accepts he was open to coalition with Fianna Fail in the past, but says now is not the time to allow them back into office as the party is "in no way repentant for the misery they've heaped upon the Irish people".

He insists the Tanaiste shares his view, even if she has not been clear in opposing coalition with Fianna Fail.

The minister knows that if the current Coalition is to be returned, there will be a need for a smaller party or a group of Independents to ensure the Government has enough seats.

He all but rules out doing business with Shane Ross and Michael Fitzmaurice's Independent Alliance as he believes they want to "play footloose and fancy-free with the Constitution" by insisting on being in the Cabinet but not attending meetings.

Howlin says there are "decent people" in the Social Democrats before launching a thinly-veiled attack on his former party colleague, Roisin Shortall, who quit Labour following a coalition row with the then health minister James Reilly.

"There are people who walked away from our party because they couldn't stand the heat of the battle," he says, before adding that some colleagues risked their reputations and careers in the "national interest".

Of course, the Coalition's ambition is to be returned to office to continue the work it began in 2011.

But recent weeks have shown that ideological differences, which surfaced many times during the past five years, are sure to again arise as the election campaign gets into full swing.

There have been accusations of Fine Gael attempting to steal Labour's clothes through the party's new left-leaning and socially-aware outlook.

Fine Gael dominated the recent abortion debate and also announced an election pledge aimed at shoring up support among low-paid working families historically seen as Labour voters.

Howlin admits every vote is fair game, but says voters will not be fooled by the new-look liberal Fine Gael.

"I don't think you can simply dress yourself up differently and you're going to be something different," he says.

"Labour's track record in protecting working families, in advancing the rights of working people, in looking at a living wage and a decent standard in supporting public services, investing in education, taking people out of welfare and being pro-jobs - I don't think we can lose that or it can be robbed from us by anybody."

He rubbishes Fine Gael's pledge to top up salaries for working parents as "corporate socialism" and says it is not a proposal Labour could accept.

The minister admits Labour did not have its way in government all the time, but says the party "tempered" Fine Gael on a number of issues.

He does not believe Enda Kenny will return with a majority government, but concedes that polling suggests he will lead the next administration.

"I think people will stand back and say, 'Do we really want the entire agenda being written by Fine Gael?' I think not," he says.

Howlin has been involved in four previous Programme for Government negotiations and is likely to lead the talks for Labour if the votes stack up. It will come as welcome news to Fine Gael that he does not believe in "red-line issues", but this might startle some of his Labour colleagues.

"You can't start listing things that are red lines - you can have negotiations and you can park things that are important for final discussion and then you come to a compromise or things are not do-able," he concludes.

Sunday Independent

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